Brother (2022) is the story of a Trinidadian immigrant family that settled in Scarborough in the 1990s. Their story is entangled with the stories of other black immigrants in the neighbourhood, where working parents sacrifice everything to build a better future for their children, but their children hit the wall of racial violence when they dare to dream more than their parents can afford to.
Brother is a movie about the fatal contradiction between the imagination of the black community across generations and the impediments imposed by the racial order on black people in Canada. This brilliant snapshot of black immigrant life in Canada stirred powerful emotions in the audience.
Based on a novel written by David Chariandy with the same title in 2017, the movie presents a cinematic narrative very loyal to its source. The family under spotlight consists of three main characters: a single mother who works as a cleaner to put food on the table and to afford rent, and two brothers.
The elder brother, Francis, takes care of the younger one, Micheal, from their early childhood while their mom takes night shifts to earn higher hourly wages. The home, a two-bedroom apartment in one of the low-rise buildings inhabited by racialized immigrants from the Caribbean and other countries, becomes the refuge of the family.
Trauma and brotherly love
The longest shots in the movie take place in this dim-lit two bedroom apartment where we are invited to witness the emotional trauma and consuming silence of the working mother as well as the duty-bound co-dependence of the two brothers, up until a point of rupture when Francis, the elder brother, imagines an independent pathway to his own fulfilment.
At the beginning of the movie, we see Francis and Micheal climbing towards the top of a hydro pole in Scarborough, in which Micheal follows the footsteps of his elder brother. This is one of the figments of Micheal’s memory, through which we see “a kid reaching brave in the skull hum of power”.
The whole story is narrated through Micheal, whose relatively quiet, introspective and emotionally turbulent world becomes the fabric that absorbs the incidents into his memory to be retold a decade later.
Francis, the elder brother, has great physical strength, an overpowering and protective presence and a very balanced personality who works hard to protect Michael from all kinds of threat, including the harm that might come from the streets of their ghetto. Francis is a surrogate father who is stuck between responsibilities towards his family and his desire to realize his own dreams that revolve around his passion for hip-hop.
The unchallengeable masculine performance of Francis is so readily interpreted by the audience in heteronormative terms that when we are made privy to his queer love affair in the back room of a barber salon with another black male musician, all the conventional notions around black masculinity and sexuality are subversed. Francis’ lyrical talent in hip-hop, his appreciation of his partner’s musical creativity and his confrontational personality in situations of conflict flow seamlessly as defining features of ‘Brother’.
Racism then and now
Barber shops in Trinidadian or Jamaican neighborhoods were used as a gathering venue for partying and developing an authentic musical language in the 1990s. Sadly but not surprisingly, the same venue is the first address to be raided by the police to harass black youth, predetermining the “culprits” of random crimes leaving a dilemma between being shot or being obedient to the police monstrosity. Brother is a movie about what happens when this dilemma is rejected.
Brother takes us to a point in history that is not far from now. One cannot help asking how much has changed over the three decades since.
When we look at COVID-19’s impact on the black population, the huge inequality that still characterizes black labour and the systemic police violence that still receives impunity, we might think not much has changed.
The power of love and community
Two women characters in the film, each from a different generation, connect in their grief for their loved ones. This union is made stronger by Francis’ partner Jelly’s new presence in the household, which until that moment is treated like a protected castle from the horrors of the outside world.
Ruth, the sacrificial mother whose dreams are shattered upon Francis’ departure from home, and Aisha, who is the love of Micheal from childhood – the only woman who breaks through the walls of the neighbourhood into a university in Montreal to be an IT engineer – bond deeply towards the end of the movie.
Jelly, a black musician and Francis’ lover, joins them, generously opening his heart to Francis’ mother to show the love he cherishes for his son. From this intimacy, we see a light shimmering sparklingly, inspiring hope for healing – to move on and to fight for a better world.
The power of resistance
The novel was written in 2017, three years after the BLM movement started. And the movie was made in 2022, just a year after the BLM movement swept the streets of the US and Canada for months. Both the author David Chariandy and the director Clement Virgo speak from the heart of this transformative period in their representation of exploitation, racism, violence and resilience with their nuanced portrayal of the black immigrant community in Canada.
At the end of the movie, the two brothers finally climb to the top of the hydro pole and are looking at the vast city of Toronto, whose streets unfold hundreds of feet below their hanging legs in patterns, and Francis tells Micheal that “A great view…One of the best in the neighbourhood, but step badly on a line, touch your hand to the wrong part while you’re brushing up against another, and you’ll burn.”
While watching Brother, one sees how generations of black immigrants have walked on egg-shells in Canada in order not to burn, and how their regenerational memory brings forth those out-of-sight stories. Each member of the audience will find their thoughts on racial injustice permanently associated with powerful sequences from the movie upon their departure from the theatre. Only then, Brother’s story will be part of a broader collective memory.